Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise!

By Stephen Grimstead

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998: 

Willie Nelson, Teatro (Island)

In recent years, Willie Nelson’s probably been better known for Farm Aid and tax hassles than for his recorded output. Which is too bad, because, while generational compatriots like George Jones, Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard have either struggled to remain relevant in Nashville or have fallen off the radar, Nelson has been casually prolific in the Nineties, producing the commercial triumph of 1993’s cameo-filled Across The Borderline and the artistic triumph of 1996’s spare, gorgeous Spirit. And now there’s Teatro, his best record in ages.

Named after producer Daniel Lanois’ California studio, Teatro gives Nelson an aural backdrop that complements the natural gifts that Spirit put on display. Only on the Lanois-penned “The Maker” does the producer’s wash of sound impinge on the star’s lovely, ageless singspeak and trademark guitar. Nelson has always been more western than country, and his Tex-Mex leanings aren’t any more attractive in today’s Nashville than his Social Security eligibility, but it makes him an ideal candidate for Lanois’ atmospheric Americana. The presence of Emmylou Harris and a stronger emphasis on percussion than on probably any Nelson record are Teatro’s sonic markers, but the real treat is the way studio guitarist Brian Griffiths adds African and Caribbean shadings to Nelson’s own south-of-the-border acoustic.

Most of the songs were written by Nelson … in the Sixties. There are three new Willie Nelson songs, but don’t get too excited. None of them are half as memorable as the Music Row retreads you’ve probably never heard before anyway. Despite the apocalyptic tone of the song titles (“Darkness on the Face of the Earth,” “The Maker,” “I’ve Just Destroyed the World”), the prevailing subject is, per usual, love gone awry. In time-worn country (American? Human?) fashion, these estrangements sometimes end in violence – the 30 year-old OJ anthem “I Just Can’t Let You Say Goodbye” is a startlingly graphic account of killing a lover who dares to leave – but more often result in self-pity; the “Three Days” filled with “tears and sorrow” are “yesterday, today and tomorrow,” and the singer’s “Home Motel” sits on “lost love avenue.”

But making self-pity tangible has been a country-and-western mission since before Hank William’s son called another man Daddy, so there’s no point in quibbling over a good thing. Especially over a record that finds a giant like Willie Nelson in such fine, fine form. – Chris Herrington

(Willie Nelson peforms at Sam’s Town Friday, September 18th.)

Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse)

Just how good and important did the most highly anticipated record of 1998 turn out to be? Well, “produced, written, arranged, and performed” by “young Lauryn” (a 23-year old Columbia drop-out and mother of Bob Marley’s grandson) without a moment’s help from her Fugees partners, it heralds the arrival of a major pop force; the most undeniable, multi-threat record-maker since Prince. The best debut album by a female R&B singer since Aretha’s I Never Loved A Man… is also the first masterpiece of hip-hop soul. Missy Elliot’s Supa Dupa Fly was formally ground-breaking and definitive, not to mention sublimely sexy and funny, but it fell short of both soul music’s emotional punch and hip-hop’s inherent political mission. Miseducation delivers the goods on both counts.

But enough with concept , let’s get to the music: Not only does she move from singing to rapping (often within the same song) with unprecedented fluidity and command, but arranges the background vocals with such wit and flair that one actually notices such things, dropping them in or pulling them out to emphasize crucial lyrics. Musically, Miseducation eschews the over-produced sheen of most contemporary R&B and hip-hop: Hill prefers live instrumentation and the spontaneous feel of Southern soul or classic reggae. The breathtaking “To Zion,” a hymn to her baby boy, finds her nailing the album’s most carefully chosen and phrased lyrics over some Carlos Santana guitar and rough percussion. The equally amazing childhood remembrance “Every Ghetto, Every City” is so joyful that it can barely contain itself. Asides, jokes, and human beat-boxes bubble underneath Lauryn’s central narrative until the magic moment when the background voices rise in unison to declare their delight: “Children playing, women producing! ” It’s a well-earned moment from a woman who has fashioned a truly special record. – C.H.

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